A SPECIAL REPORT ON THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ECONOMY : CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON : Traffic Congestion Threatens to Stall the Economic Engine

Times Staff Writer

It doesn't take a genius to know that traffic is getting worse in Southern California. Whether it's the Ventura Freeway--now the region's most heavily traveled--or the Harbor, the Santa Monica or the Santa Ana, rush hours are starting earlier and ending later. Routinely congested stretches on the freeways are getting longer, and drivers' tempers are getting shorter.

And yet the region's population and economy continue to grow. More high-rise buildings are added to already densely developed areas, attracting more commuters and their cars. More immigrants continue to pour in, from Latin America and Asia, from Texas and New York. More bedroom suburbs spring up in the outlying counties, places with few jobs but lots of two-car garages.

Unless something can be done to change these patterns, many planners fear, Southern California's transportation system may come to a grinding halt by early next century, and that could have major implications for business.

"Projections for continued growth . . . indicate that in the next five to 20 years, the (traffic) problem will become intolerable," the Southern California Assn. of Governments announced last year.

According to a recent study sponsored by the agency, the total number of driving trips that people make in the region on an average workday will rise 45% between 1984 and 2010--to 58.3 million "person trips" from 40.2 million. (A person trip is defined as one person making a one-way trip by car, bus or other mode of transportation.) But because freeways and surface streets are already operating near capacity, and because new construction is expected to increase that capacity only slightly, the number of hours needed to complete those trips will rise by 225%, the SCAG study predicts.

What this means is that, while delays accounted for about 10% of total travel time in 1984, fully half of travel time in 2010 may be wasted in delays. What is now a one-hour commute could take two or three hours by 2010, and SCAG predicts that the average driving speed will fall to 19 miles per hour from 35 m.p.h.

Such congestion would, of course, have a terrible effect on Southern California's air quality. "Mobile sources account for about two-thirds of the region's pollutants," says Arthur Davidson, a spokesman for the Air Quality Management District, and cars and trucks stuck in stop-and-go traffic throw off several times more pollution per mile than when they are moving down the road at 55 m.p.h.

Air quality has improved during the past 10 years, AQMD figures show, and the agency believes that more can be achieved. "For some pollutants (such as lead) the progress has been good, and for some (such as ozone) it's been more moderate," Davidson says. But experts agree that if gridlock becomes a regular occurance on the freeways, smog problems will almost certainly get worse.

Greatly increased congestion and pollution could have major effects on Southern California businesses. Deliveries of supplies coming in and finished products going out would be routinely delayed. Employees who must spend two or three hours driving to work might not be as productive as they are now. Large companies could have trouble persuading executives around the country to accept a transfer to the region. Slow-growth or no-growth movements could prevent factories from expanding and inhibit new real estate development, cutting into construction jobs.

What can be done to prevent Southern California and its economy from choking on too much traffic and air pollution?

Building more freeways, most planners believe, is not the solution. New freeways cost too much, take too long to build and destroy existing neighborhoods.

The $1.7-billion Century Freeway now being built to run east from Los Angeles International Airport is a case in point: It has taken literally decades to reach the construction stage from the time it was first proposed, and when it's completed around 1993 it will probably be filled to capacity on the first day it's open.

With the possible exception of some new routes in Orange County, and perhaps filling a few short gaps in the current network, Caltrans says it does not expect to construct new routes from scratch in the foreseeable future. There will be some widening of existing freeways and the construction of some bus and car pool lanes--essentially diamond lanes, although planners wince when they hear the term--but that's about it.

What transportation planners do expect is more of what they call "demand management."

"With a little bit of management, we can make the present system work," says Peter Gordon, a professor at USC's School of Urban and Regional Planning. "The capacity is in the empty cars"--meaning that, with more ride-sharing schemes and van pools and buses, the current freeway system can carry many more people in the same number of vehicles.

Some improvement can come from technical fixes: more on-ramp traffic lights, for example, or computerized monitoring of freeways. And some easing of demand may come from greater use of "flextime" by companies--shifting work hours away from the typical 9-to-5 so employees aren't forced to commute during rush hours. The 1984 Olympics provided a startling example of how shifting schedules away from peak periods could make all the difference.

But the Olympics were a one-shot deal, with unusually strong public support. For the long haul, planners and government agencies are beginning to discuss more drastic forms of demand management. Large trucks could be banned from the freeway system and other congested areas during rush hours. Quotas or heavy taxes could be levied on the new parking spaces to discourage driving in densely developed areas.

Just this year, AQMD has begun to circulate a proposal that would require all facilities with at least 100 employees or 50 vehicles to implement ride-sharing plans and achieve specific percentage reductions in vehicle use. While agency officials say they hope to "develop programs by offering incentives to companies," they clearly have not ruled out the use of sticks as well as carrots.

Whatever solution emerges will undoubtedly be a combination of many small solutions--some voluntary, some less so. But less pessimistic planners think the region will probably muddle through.

"Most development is taking place at the metropolitan edges, not the center," USC's Gordon says. "And the traffic benefits of suburbanization are greater than expected. Employers are following the work force into the suburbs, and more commuting is suburb to suburb." Urban sprawl, he believes, will continue to invade San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties, southern Orange County and northern Los Angeles county. But the relative lack of density helps to keep traffic at manageable levels.

"L.A. isn't really in the big leagues when it comes to congestion," Gordon says. "For world-class traffic problems, you have to go to New York, Rome, Mexico City--places like that."

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